Diane talks with Ari Berman, senior reporter at Mother Jones and author of the book, “Give Us The Ballot: The Modern Struggle For Voting Rights In America.”
Guest Host: Indira Lakshmanan
Australian novelist Richard Flanagan grew up hearing his father tell stories about being a POW during World War II. His father was taken prisoner by the Japanese and forced to work on the Thailand-Burma railway. More than 100,000 died building the railroad. Flanagan’s father’s stories were the inspiration for his latest novel, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North.” The book took 12 years to write and won the Man Booker prize last year. A conversation with Flanagan about researching the novel, including his interviews in Japan with former guards who oversaw the labor camps.
- Richard Flanagan Author of six novels, including "The Narrow Road to the Deep North," which won the Man Booker Prize in 2014.
Read A Featured Excerpt
Excerpted from The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan Copyright © 2014 by Richard Flanagan. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher
MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANThanks for joining us. I'm Indira Lakshmanan of Bloomberg News sitting in for Diane Rehm, who's out having a voice treatment. The title of Richard Flanagan's latest novel is "The Narrow Road to the Deep North." It's borrowed from a work by 17th century Japanese haiku master, Matsuo Basho. Basho's writing is one of the treasures of Japanese culture, but Flanagan says he chose the title to contrast with the brutality inflicted by Japanese on their prisoners of war in World War II.
MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANAustralian novelist, Richard Flanagan, joins me in the studio. Welcome.
MR. RICHARD FLANAGANLovely to be here, Indira.
LAKSHMANANWe'll be taking your comments and your questions throughout the hour. Have you read the book that critics have called a masterpiece and compared to "Dr. Zhivago"? Do you know someone who was a prisoner of war? Call us on 800-433-8850. Send us your email at drshow@WAMU.org or join us on Facebook or Twitter. So Richard Flanagan, this book was inspired by your father's experience as a Japanese POW.
LAKSHMANANHow close is his own story to that of Dorrigo Evans, the main character?
FLANAGANWell, it's completely different, Indira, because as much as my father's experience, you know, lead me to be unable to not write this book -- it's not a book I wanted to write. It's a book that was a stone within me and the stone grew and grew and in the end, I felt that if I didn't write this book, I would never be able to write another book. And so it was something I couldn't escape.
FLANAGANBut to write that book, I had to do something more than write a fictionalized memoir of my father so I needed a character completely different and I invented one who's a doctor who becomes a leader of the prisoners of war in a particular camp on the Death Railway in Thailand in 1943. And he, after the war, is celebrated as a war hero, but feels himself to be anything but that.
FLANAGANAnd the book really is a -- it's a love story, but set against the background of that terrible experience.
LAKSHMANANWell, you grew up hearing these stories from your father, as you said, all of the trauma he had experienced as a POW. Was this book meant, in some way, as a catharsis either for him or for yourself?
FLANAGANIt mattered to my father that people remember, you know. This was a terrible crime which is largely forgotten. Somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 people died building the Death Railway. That's more people than died at Hiroshima, more people than there are words in my novel. So that did matter to him, but he didn't expect it or that wasn’t his concern. And for me, I guess -- I think people come back from great traumas with a certain sort of cosmic wound to the soul.
FLANAGANAnd that wound passes out into their families and communities and sometimes whole societies. I think it's true we live -- that although we live in this age where we believe if we tell all, we'll find some transcendence, the truth is man survives by his ability to forget. And after great trauma, people have to forget for a time. But then, equally, freedom exists in the space of memory and at a certain point, you have to get back into those shadows and confront those terrible things in order to reemerge into the light.
FLANAGANThe problem is, that's not always possible in one life and sometimes, it falls to others to seek to communicate the incommunicable. There's a beautiful story about the great Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova, who became a non person under Stalin and had all the books taken out of the library. She was no longer published. And in the terrible winter of 1942, she's standing outside the Lubyanka, the KGB prison in the middle of Moscow in this long queue of people who have got some food they're trying to get into their loved ones who are imprisoned inside and then her son was one of them.
FLANAGANAnd in this queue of utter anguish and despair, but also a strange hope, one woman recognized this other woman who was in rags was the great Anna Akhmatova and she asked her was she Akhmatova, the great poet. And Akhmatova said yes. And then, the woman said, can you describe this? And Akhmatova looks up and down this terrible line and finally she says, yes, I can. And I think that's the role that sometimes falls to writers to seek to try and communicate these incommunicable things.
LAKSHMANANWell, in fact, you talk to your father many, many times over the course of years, taking details down from him. What are some of those details from his personal experience that you included in your book?
FLANAGANMy father didn't talk that much. He talked a little. He told funny stories tinged with a certain pathos and a strange love, I guess. When I talk to him, I just talk to him about very real material, concrete things about the nature of the mud, the way, you know, that the particular stench of a rotting shin bone when a tropical ulcer has blossomed fully out, the taste of sour rice on a starving belly, the sensation of starvation within the body and within the mind, the way limestone rock would cut through your feet.
FLANAGANIt was all those things. Because I don't think life -- we don't live life as something dramatic or tragic or comic. We live within our senses and we experience things as mud and spittle and as light, as darkness. It's only afterwards that we find those things dramatic or tragic or comic and a novel must do the same things. It must try and describe as accurately as possible the real world and then allow the reader to find meaning within that.
FLANAGANIt should never tell the reader what that meaning is.
LAKSHMANANCan you read us a passage from your novel?
FLANAGANWell, this one, Indira, at the heart of the book, a man gets beaten to death and his fall begins in the morning of one day in 1943 when he folds his blanket contrary, the wrong way round, contrary to Japanese army regulations and he's rifle battered for it. And this small reading takes place many years later. "Decades later, Jimmy Bigelow would insist that his kids always fold their clothes so, fold every outwards. He would open the drawers of his chest of drawers in their suburban weatherboard home in Hobart to make sure they were safe and the fold was out.
FLANAGANHe would never hit or smack them for not folding their clothes with the fold out. He would beg and plead. He would order and demand and, in the end, exasperated he would refold and restack their clothes himself as they stood by nervously waiting. He would feel some nameless terror that was beyond him to explain, a confusion they, too, would carry with them for the rest of their lives that was both love and fear, that was beyond the drawers opening and closing, beyond their father's frustration and mumbling.
FLANAGANHe knew they didn't understand, but could they not see? How could they not know? It should've been so obvious what had to be understood. You could never know when everything might change, a mood, a decision, a blanket, a life. They knew none of it. They only knew that whatever they did, he would never hurt them. At the very worst, he would throw them over his knee, bring his hand up and then hold it there, hovering over their bottom.
FLANAGANSometimes, they would feel him shaking through his knees and thighs. They would steal a look upwards and see his hands trembling, his eye watery. How could they know that their father was desperately trying to protect them from the unexpected smash of a rifle butt into their soft child's cheeks to warn them of what horrors this hard world had ready for the unwary, the unwise and the unprepared, to prepare them for all those things for which no one could ever be readied.
FLANAGANThey knew only this one thing, that he would never hurt them. As his body trembled back and forth through time, they knew what he meant when he said, rightio and suddenly through them off his lap and back onto their feet. Averting his eyes, he would wave them away with an extended hand. That's it, he would say, rightio. Just put the fold out next time. Out, always out. Rightio.
FLANAGANAnd they would run outside into the sun. Perhaps, he wondered, he didn't make the time or space he should for love. He fitted it in and it flittered away. Perhaps he somehow chose, why he couldn't say, the predictable lines of work over love's wild circling, the folding of a blanket over the unfolding of locked arms. But sometimes, it was just there. Staring out an open window to see little Jodie look up and wave to him with the biggest smile. He was shocked to see love playing in a backyard of brown grass under a sprinkler's diamond spill, shocked to know he had been lucky enough to live and know it, to love and be loved.
FLANAGANAnd he would watch his children playing outside in the sun, ashamed, amazed. It was always sunny.
LAKSHMANANWow. Beautiful. Coming up, we'll have more with Richard Flanagan after the break. Stay with us on The Diane Rehm Show.
LAKSHMANANWelcome back. I'm Indira Lakshmanan. I'm sitting in for Diane Rehm. We're with Richard Flanagan, the Man Booker Prize-Winning Australian novelist who just read a very moving passage from his new novel, "The Narrow Road to the Deep North." Richard, I was struck in hearing that. I know concentration camp survivors from World War II who have carried that trauma throughout their lives, who've been haunted by experiences they had in camps in large and small ways. And I'm wondering, is that what you were trying to show in that passage about the man so obsessed with how his children should fold their clothes, when of course there is no penalty in his home for it but he saw what happened to the young man killed in the camp?
FLANAGANWell, I guess. I mean I think all of us carry so much more within us than we ever know. And it's simply the writer's job to journey within their soul and discover the many other things that we have. We think we're just our own history and our own news on this earth. But we know in moments of great anguish or great ecstasy, great passion, that in fact are contained within us so much more -- all the living and all the dead. And we carry the weight both of great joys and great sorrows of others within us. And we carry them within us in quite -- in an utterly profound way. And it's the role of the novelist, I think, to remind the reader of that.
FLANAGANI mean, we go to novels because we only have one life and we have to pretend these guys that we call Indira or Richard that that's us. But in a great work of art, we recognize there are a thousand other possibilities of people that might be the most murderous, the most terrible, also the greatest and the best. We recognize that within every soul there's a universe. That's what a novel allows us. I think that's why novels are a liberation.
LAKSHMANANWe got an email from Amanda Ewington, who's an Associate Professor and Department Chair of Russian Studies at Davidson College in North Carolina. And she asks about the influence of Russian classics on your writing. When she read this novel, she said she couldn't help but thinking about Solzhenitsyn's "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" and other Gulag novels and memoirs. So how much have you read of the Russians and how much of an influence have they been on your work?
FLANAGANWell, I'm a great admirer of the Russians. "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" is an extraordinary work. But the thing I really took from it is that assertion of dignity, that this man in this most terrible place finds his humanity in simply building this brick wall and working hard and finding some joy, even though the task is pointless and cruel. The people working on it somehow are able to assert their humanity through this mindless task. I was very influenced by Chekov, Tolstoy. But with regard to this book, Vasily Grossman's life and fate and forever flowing were quite extraordinary influences too.
LAKSHMANANMany Americans are really most familiar with the Death Railway from Thailand to Burma through this film and book, "Bridge Over the River Kwai." It's a story that was widely criticized by -- as inaccurate by POWs who survived. Is your book, in part, setting the record straight?
FLANAGANYou know, I saw that film as a kid. It was -- I didn't realize until I was an adult it was about the same experience. It was so far removed from any connection with reality. So I didn't feel any need to set the record straight because I never thought that had anything to do with that terrible experience there. It, you know, it's a David Lean movie and it's a fine movie. And it relates as much to that experience as "Hogan's Heroes" does to the horrors of the European War.
LAKSHMANANRight. Of course part of what you're doing is bringing that history to life for us again for a lot of people who are not so familiar with the POW experience in Japan and in Thailand. And as part of your research, you went to Japan and tracked down some of these former prison guards, isn't that right, including some of the most brutal ones. Tell us about that. What are they like today?
FLANAGANWell, I don't actually research very much but in the end, I knew I had to go to Japan. And I did search for and find several Japanese guards who'd worked on the railway who were kind enough to meet with me. And five minutes before meeting one of them, I realized he was the one who'd actually been the "Ivan-the-Terrible" of my father's camp -- the man the Australians called "The Lizard." And he'd been sentenced to death for war crimes at the end of the war and had his death sentence commuted and then subsequently was released in a general amnesty in 1956. And the man I met -- a man my father, who was a very gentle man, he was the only person my father ever spoke of with violent intent -- the man I met was a gentle and generous, very old man who tried to answer my questions as best he could.
FLANAGANAnd after about an hour and a half -- and I don't quite know why I did this -- but I asked him to slap me because slapping was the first and principal form of immediate punishment in the prisoner of war camps. It was called binta. And they would slap and slap. They would actually line the men up in rows facing each other and make them slap each other for hours on end.
FLANAGANAnd I asked him to slap me. And he rightly thought this was a strange and bizarre request but finally he was persuaded. And he stood up and he prepared himself like an athlete. And he'd spoken about how he'd never committed any acts of violence. I didn't go there in the spirit of prosecution or judgment. I went there just simply trying to, in the same way I'd spoken to my father, just asking about the surface details because I think truth resides in them. But he -- his memory seemed to fail him somewhat about violence. And so I thought this slap might somehow -- I might learn something.
FLANAGANAnd he tensed his body and acted in the way you would to get maximum force. I'd asked him to hit me as hard as he could, although he was a very old man. And of his slaps, I remember only how papery and dry his -- the skin of his hand was. And on the third blow, the whole room started to roll and sway and shake, like a dingy in a wild sea. And I really thought I was going mad because it was a very strange and difficult thing for me to do to be in that room with this man. And in fact, in one of those coincidences which reality allows for but a novelist is never allowed to have a fear of going unrealistic, a 7.3 Richter scale earthquake had hit Tokyo.
LAKSHMANANAt just the moment of the slap.
FLANAGANAt the moment of the slap, yeah. No, it's such a strange and it is a funny thing. And as the room rolled, it went on for about half a minute and there was this eerie shimmering sound from all the taxi cage. I'd met him in a taxi office run by his son -- all these taxi car cage just shimmering. And I looked across at him and he was frightened. And I realized that wherever evil was, it wasn't in that room with this old man. So these things were strange experiences and made me think deeply about what the nature of evil is and where evil comes from -- what it means, does it exist? You know, why is there -- why do terrible things happen in this world?
FLANAGANI mean, I returned to my home in Tasmania and my father rang me within a few hours of me getting back, which was unusual. And he asked me -- he'd been frightened about me going to Japan -- and he asked me how the trip had went. And I told him that I'd met with several guards, including this man, The Lizard. And I told him the truth, that I felt they all felt, if not guilt, they felt something more fundamental, which was a deep shame. And they'd all asked me to pass on their deep regret and apologies to my father, which they had. And...
LAKSHMANANIncluding The Lizard.
FLANAGANIncluding The Lizard. Because I think people, we have some -- as a species, we do have a deep, fundamental moral sense. I don't know why. But I don't doubt that exists in most people, other than those who have some sort of psychic damage.
LAKSHMANANAnd so what was your father's reaction?
FLANAGANMy father was -- he went silent. And then he said he had to go and hung up. And he was 98 by then, but his mind was still excellent and his recall phenomenal. But later that day, he lost all memory of his time in the prisoner of war camps.
FLANAGANAnd my sister said to me, it was as if he were finally free. We -- you realize the supreme strangeness of us as human beings, the way we can be party to such terrible crimes. And then our need all around for people simply to acknowledge that these wrongs were fundamental and should never have happened. And I think the -- you come to realize that the first beating, the first bullet, the first beheading on a crime like the Death Railway, that isn't where the evil begins. The evil begins decades before with politicians, public figures, intellectuals, spiritual leaders, journalists advocating the idea that some people are less than people.
FLANAGANThat's where the poison enters the society. And that's when it should be named as such. And in the West at the moment, these ideas are abroad in my society and certainly in yours that some people are less than people and that you can treat them in a way that is inconsistent with humanity because they're not -- because they're less than people. And once you admit to that idea, then the road is open to the horrors of things like the Death Railway and all those horrors of World War II and all those crimes against humanity. So I think people shouldn't so much sit in judgment of those people who ran extermination camps, who ran things like the Death Railway or worked as guards.
FLANAGANIf they want to honor that memory, they should look to our society now and speak up against those who are promoting the same evil ideas again.
LAKSHMANANI'm Indira Lakshmanan. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." If you'd like to join us, call 1-800-433-8850. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow us on Facebook or send us a Tweet. You know, listening to your answer, I'm struck that it feels almost as if your father was waiting to be asked for his own forgiveness from these guards. And it reminds me that in your book, one of the fictional, brutal Japanese commanders becomes a really good man after the war. And I'm wondering, is that even possible, if he wasn't held accountable for his crimes?
FLANAGANI didn't think he became a good man. But when you write a novel, a novel isn't an argument. A novel isn't a thesis. A novel is like life itself, it's erratic and inconsistent. And it's -- Chekov said, the novelist's job or the writer's job is not to judge their characters. It's simply to describe what they do and say. And it is for God and the reader to judge. So that character, you read it and feel he became a good man. Other people have read it and feel that he was a hypocrite or that he was a monster to the end.
LAKSHMANANThat's right. Well, he styled himself as a good man. But of course the whole thing was a fraud, even the way he was able to keep, you know, change his identity.
FLANAGANWell, I think with a novel, you know, I simply wrote what someone does. I didn't -- it's not for the -- I really do believe it's not for the novelist. Particularly here in America, people want to talk about novels as though you fully understand your characters. But a novel, for one thing, if you understand a character, then they no longer can live. You have to have somebody who's, as you are or I am, capable of being understood in many different ways. And the other aspect of a novel is, in the end, story and character aren't what a novel is really about. Story and character are the motley we throw over very fundamental abstract emotions within our soul. And we use the story and character to communicate that to the reader.
FLANAGANBut it's not those things within our soul that we share in a communion with the reader or the reader finds in the novel. So the emphasis on what a character is or what the story is misses the larger point -- these abstract but very fundamental human things that a novel is trying to say.
LAKSHMANANYou also went to Thailand as part of this to visit the railway. What was it like to see the sight of the camp where your father and so many thousands of others were held and brutalized?
FLANAGANWell, the first time I went there, I went there just in the -- I tried to think like a poet, just to observe the -- just to feel the hate, to see the thorny bamboo, to feel broken rock under my feet, to carry rock in that sweltering heat. I didn't try and think at all about what his experience was. Empathy is a dangerous thing for a novelist, you know? They have to step outside of the page to write accurately about what's happening. But I returned there a few months ago with a BBC film crew who were making a documentary on me. And I was overcome with grief and I couldn't wait to get out of there. I just found it sad beyond belief.
FLANAGANBecause nothing's left of that railway now. There's a certain section which is still used but the rest of it was pulled up and destroyed after the war. And so those quarter-of-a-million people who slaved on that project, that 100,000 to 200,000 who died, who are so nameless and so forgotten that there's no accurate count beyond those figures I've given, it was all for nothing. And the sadness of that is so overwhelming that, as human beings, we could embark on such terrible folly at the cost of so many lives. It is unspeakable. And of it, nothing remains.
LAKSHMANANAnd the unmarked graves of all of these people who died while making this, as you say, this folly, this project, as slave laborers.
FLANAGANThat's right. It is really a great Asian tragedy because most of the people who died were actually Asians who'd been conscripted by the Japanese. And for them, there's no record, no testimony, no histories, no novels. They're lost -- they're lost to humanity.
LAKSHMANANComing up, your calls and your questions for Man Booker Prize-Winning novelist Richard Flanagan. We'll be right back. Stay with us.
LAKSHMANANWelcome back. I'm Indira Lakshmanan, sitting in for Diane Rehm. With me is Richard Flanagan, the Booker Prize winning author of "Narrow Road to the Deep North." Richard, we've gotten some interesting emails. And one here from John in Alexandria, Virginia says that his mother and his family were Dutch prisoners of war in various camps throughout Indonesia. And that his mother would never speak of her experiences in one of the most notorious women's camps. And he was left to discover her journey himself when he went, this year, to Indonesia to look into what happened.
LAKSHMANANHe says that he was fascinated by the slivers of bars of soap that she collected and he asked her why and she said it's because you never knew when you would have soap or anything else. And the silver lining to all of this was that one of the American liberators fell in love with her and two years later, they were married here in Washington in the National Cathedral. And he's, of course, the result of that. So, I'm sure in the process of writing this, you know, you not only talking to your dad as a POW, but talking to others.
LAKSHMANANOne of the things that you bring up here, that, you know, necessarily would have pursued these people through their lives, is the cruelty and the misery that they experienced in these POW camps. And reading about it, it's really disturbing and dehumanizing and in one scene, a prisoner is literally beaten to death until he drowns in his own excrement. Was it hard to write these scenes and did you have your own form of post-traumatic stress after completing this novel?
FLANAGANTo describe that, I realize, because their experience, as with people who've been through those extraordinary experiences, was so large and so remarkable that it was beyond a novel to do, except in a very concentrated way. To give you one example, there was a prisoner of war who I didn't meet, but who's still alive, who lived through the Death Railway, who was a slave laborer in Japan, and who was 500 yards from ground zero at Nagasaki when the bomb went off.
FLANAGANAnd survived all that. Now, you cannot put all that in a novel without looking ludicrous. But that's in one otherwise seemingly ordinary man's life. The way I did it in the novel, I realized, was I just had to have a very tight focus and just simply show one day and show the very small indignities. Describe accurately the pain, the misery, the hopelessness, and the pointlessness of the violence. So, really, there's not that much -- it's not a large canvas. But it is a detailed one. And it's in those details, hopefully, that the truth emerges.
FLANAGANI mean, it seems almost insulting to talk about a writer's feelings in the same breath as people who have actually lived those things. You know, it's not the same thing at all.
LAKSHMANANWere you inhabiting these characters, though? Did you take on any of that or I wonder if you felt a sense of exhaustion when you finished writing?
FLANAGANI did end up living by myself, you know, I mean, I've got a family who I love and I love being with, but to write it, finally, it took me 12 years. I wrote five different novels, all of which I've destroyed because none of them worked. And in the end, I went and lived on an island off Tasmania by myself and I just wrote. I'd get up with the sun and I'd write through to 10:00 or 11 'o clock every evening, rewriting the novel, top to bottom. And I thought, somehow, it would allow me to divine the un-divinable, that I would somehow learn a little.
FLANAGANAbout these great questions of evil, love, hope, kindness, goodness, and at the end, I realized I understood absolutely nothing at all. And for some months after I finished the novel, it was winter there. And I just sat in front of a fire. I could do nothing. You know, there was -- I felt completely eviscerated by it.
LAKSHMANANYou felt spent.
FLANAGANYeah. But it is for a novelist to give the best of themselves, you know? And the rest is unimportant, really.
LAKSHMANANWhy did you destroy all five of these previous versions, and did your father ever have a chance to read any of the drafts or the final novel?
FLANAGANI destroyed them because they were rubbish, you know? It's just simple, really. And...
LAKSHMANANWell, your rubbish may be someone else's gold, you never know.
FLANAGANNo, I just -- you just know they don't work and it's not good to keep them because they sully your next attempt. My father never read any of them. I don't think he would have read the final book. And it wouldn't have worried me at all. He gave me this enormous gift, which was that he trusted me to write whatever I wished. And he believed I wouldn't let him down. And I see, now, that was the most beautiful gift of love.
LAKSHMANANDid he know that you finally finished the novel?
FLANAGANHe did. It was April, 2013 and I'd emailed it off and I went to see him. He was, by then, quite ill, and I told him it was done. And he died that evening.
FLANAGANThe two things aren't connected, I'm sure.
LAKSHMANANYou don't think he was waiting for you to finish before he died?
FLANAGANI don't. No, I don't think so. It's, but, clearly, in my life, these things came together as -- I mean, life has a poetic structure, you know? We're in an age where we're told everything has an economic structure, that things only have meanings as numbers, but when you look at your own life or anyone's life around you, you see that often, that observes the rules of poetry. Or more accurately, poetry observes the rules of life.
LAKSHMANANLet's take a call from Isabel in Marriottsville, Maryland. Isabel, you're on the air.
ISABELOh, great. Thank you. And thank you, Richard, for this story. I'm Australian. It's wonderful to hear your accent. I'm an American citizen, too. I've been here over 20 years, but it's lovely to hear your voice. My father was in World War II in the Air Force. He's from Little Rock Hampton, country town up north, went in at age 17 to be heroic. And ended up being shot at twice and crashed twice. And never, ever talked about it, so as kids, we just didn't really know about it. He walked in the (word?) Parade every year.
ISABELBut one night, we were watching, maybe in the '60s, we were teenagers, we were watching black and white war movie, Hollywood stars and up in the airplanes with leather jackets looking handsome and being heroic. And my father, who would always go to bed early, uncharacteristically got up and came storming across the lounge room, half crying, half angry, turned off the television, and with this voice I'd never heard before, said, it wasn't like that. It wasn't like that. It was nothing like that. We were so scared. We were so frightened. And the smell of everyone's bowels letting loose with fear. It wasn't like that up there.
ISABELAnd we were left -- I was so stunned. And that was the beginning of, you know, as an adult, realizing more and more how my dad and your dad and so many people of that generation suffered so much and never talked about it. And, nowadays, we talk about post-traumatic stress and getting this help and that help, and as individuals, we all go to therapy for the slightest little problem, but that generation, my dad came back from the war and he used to say, happily, they gave me a new suit, a new hat, a carton of cigarettes and a bottle of whiskey.
ISABELSo, of course, he smoked and drank and went straight back to work.
LAKSHMANANIsabel, thank you so much. Richard, could you comment on that? I mean, both the experience you've seen in the POWs that you have known, what Isabel is talking about.
FLANAGANWell, I just think that this idea of heroism that's so prevalent in movies, literature, in life in general, I think it's such an insulting lie to people who had those extraordinary experiences. Because it -- these experiences are so profound and in them, people see the very best and the very worst of human beings, and within themselves, experience the whole gamut of emotions. And then to, if you're lucky enough to survive that, then to see it represented as this very narrow lie that's called heroism, in which some people are heroic and some are not, I think is a terrible insult to everyone who's been through those experiences.
LAKSHMANANOn the flip side of that, do you think the Japanese have accepted their nation's responsibility for wartime atrocities? I mean, just last week, here in Washington, we were hearing about the so-called comfort women, who were sex slaves, who haven't yet gotten an apology from the Japanese government. And I know that your book is being translated into Japanese. Is this written, in part, as a way to reach a younger generation?
FLANAGANWell, clearly, the Japanese nation hasn't come to terms with it. And I think every nation carries great sins, but in the end, to become a great nation, you have to confront them and you have to come to an honest reckoning with them, or they will poison your future. So, the Japanese have dealt with it very differently than the Germans have dealt with their guilt. But for the Japanese, the situation was made impossible, in one sense, by the decision of the American occupying forces under MacArthur to keep the emperor.
FLANAGANAnd they did that, because they felt that's what they had to do to keep the peace. So, it's, you know, when you are there is the embodiment of the emperor's will, committing those terrible atrocities. Then, at war's end, you're told that what you did was wrong, that the person who you thought you were acting for is allowed to continue. I think that's very confusing individually, and nationally.
LAKSHMANANSo, in a way, exculpating the emperor, and finding him absolved, also absolved, in a way, the entire nation, the people who were his foot soldiers.
FLANAGANWell, yes. I mean, how can you feel guilty when the one at the top isn't? If you go to something like the (word?) War Shrine and look at the museum there, it is a museum of a type the Nazis would have been happy to have if they'd won the war, you know? It describes the Rape of Nanking in a paragraph and dismisses the mass atrocity there. The death railways reduced to one paragraph. No mention of all the dead. I mean, so there's just no public recognition of all that's taken place.
LAKSHMANANI'm Indira Lakshmanan, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Let's go...
FLANAGANIf I can just say one thing...
FLANAGANWhen I visited Japan, I found the Japanese people open and generous and interested in those things. So, you know, I expect my book -- I don't expect hostility when it comes out. There is a curiosity about those things and a willingness to engage with them there.
LAKSHMANANLet's take a call from Dyote (sp?) in Washington, D.C. Dyote, you're on the air.
DYOTECongratulations to Flanagan for winning the Booker Prize. And my question relates to The Theory of Hannah on the famous Jewish journalist who while writing about Adolf Eichmann trial, the Adolf Eichmann of the Nazi concentration camp chief. She wrote about the banality of evil and suggesting that human beings are all capable of committing acts of evil. And it's a very controversial theory. I'd like to know what Mr. Flanagan thinks about that.
FLANAGANWell, I think it's more complex than that. I think people sometimes find in evil an assertion of their humanity. They find it allows them to express themselves in ways that felt denied in other ways. That that's a terrible truth about human beings, I think that war allows people -- war demands of people that they commit crimes in which any other aspect of life you'd be sentenced to jail for life or even executed for. So, I think it's -- I think there's truth in that description, the banality of evil, but I think it's incomplete.
FLANAGANBecause I think we're more complex. And I think, also, you have to look at the context always and the history of events that leads to people like Eichmann being given the reigns.
LAKSHMANANRichard Flanagan, this is also a love story. Tell us about Dorrigo's relationship with Amy, and why did you feel that a war story needed a love story in it?
FLANAGANI think if you want to talk about dark things in the end, you have to acknowledge that we're creatures of hope. Human beings, without hope, are dead people walking. And I think any art that's only about darkness, that's only dark, in the end, we reject as being untrue to what we know about ourselves. And that is that we always hope. And the highest expression of hope is love. The oddity of love is that when we're in love, we discover that we're not one, but we're the universe in a moment that dies immediately afterwards.
FLANAGANAnd that's why love stories are always about death. It's not that when we're in love, death automatically follows, but love stories and being true to that psychological truth always have death in them. And so, if you're going to do a story about war, and about the darkness of war, you need something to balance that. And you need to have hope, and that's why I needed this love story.
LAKSHMANANAnd tell us it was somewhat based on actually a neighbor of your parents, right?
FLANAGANI grew up in a little town in Tasmania and there was a story my parents used to tell when I was a child that I always found particularly moving. And it was about a Latvian man who lived there, who'd immigrated to Australia after the war and he'd been caught up in those great cataclysmic movements of people that swept the blood lands of Europe during the war. And when he got back to his home village, in Latvia, at war's end, it was to find it raised to the ground, and his wife, he was told dead.
FLANAGANHe refused to believe it. And he searched the wastelands of eastern Europe for the next two years trying to find her, but in the end, he had to admit that she was dead. He immigrated to Australia, ended up in this little village where my family lived and he married an Australian woman and had a family. In 1957, he went to Sydney and he was walking down a crowded street there, and he saw walking towards him his Latvian wife with a child on either hand. And at that point, he had but a few moments to decide whether he would acknowledge her.
FLANAGANOr walk on. And growing up, I always thought that was the most beautiful story I knew about the terrible question of love. And its costs and its power and what it demands of us. And it was that, it was that image that led me to construct the whole novel around.
LAKSHMANANWell, it is an extraordinary, epic novel, winner of the Booker Prize. Richard Flanagan, thank you so much for joining us. The novel is called "The Narrow Road to the Deep North." Thank you, Richard.
FLANAGANThank you, Indira.
LAKSHMANANThank you for joining "The Diane Rehm Show."
Most Recent Shows
Diane talks with Ryan Goodman, Chaired Professor of Law at New York University School of Law and co-editor-in-chief of the national security online forum, Just Security, about what we're learning - and what we still need to find out.
Historian Heather Cox Richardson’s online newsletter, “Letters from An American,” became a hit during the Trump presidency. Her thoughts on the Republican party now, the beginning of the Biden administration, and where to look in American history for parallels to today.
Diane talks with Jim Tankersley, economics reporter at The New York Times and author of the recent book, "The Riches of This Land: The Untold, True Story of America's Middle Class."